New Year’s Eve, Kiev


New Year’s morning, I was up early. There’d been no babushka at the desk on this floor and nobody in the hallways. Normally there were Cubans or Vietnamese hanging around the foyer outside the restaurant. Today it was empty. I went inside and thought there was no one here either but then a waitress appeared. The tables were still covered with dirty dishes and bottles and she was slowly picking them up and putting them on a trolley. I sat down at my usual table beside the wall. She ignored me and after a few minutes I got up and went over to where she was working.


“Can I get breakfast?” I asked.


She shook her head, not meaning no but meaning she didn’t understand because with it she shrugged held her hands open in front of her.


“Breakfast,” I repeated slowly.


She shook her head again and I looked around for someone who could speak English. There was still just the two of us. I couldn’t think of the word in Ukrainian or Russian so I said petite dejeuner, remembering it from grade ten French and she said, Ah, oui, petite dejeuner and I nodded and said, oui, petite dejeuner. She said non and swung her right arm slowly in a half circle indicating the shambles from the night before. Pain, I said, fromage, kubisa, chi, pointing at a buffet table which still had some food on it. She nodded, then winced as if her head hurt. She went and got me a plate of bread which curled a bit at the edges and stale cheese and sliced meat and a large cup of tea. I said, “Possibe.” and she disappeared through the doors which led to the kitchen and didn’t come back.


Ivan met me for lunch. By that time the restaurant seemed itself again, rigidly organized with clean tablecloths and china and cutlery. All the staff seemed to whisper and walk on their toes. Ivan ordered a carafe of brandy. We toasted each other’s health until the decanter was empty. When we left, I was glad to get out into the cool air. We wandered down Kreschatik and caught a streetcar.


“You don’t mind,” Ivan said. “Today, no drivers.”


“I’m not American,” I said. I wondered if he actually believed that Americans and Canadians were different. After all, if someone had said to me, I’m not Russian, I’m Albanian or Azerbijani, it wouldn’t have meant anything. All my life I’d been taught they were Russian, that Russia and the Soviet Union were one and the same. They all wore fur hats and spent every waking moment of their lives plotting the downfall of democracy and replacing it with godless Communism.


That’s why the market shocked me. It was one large room in a huge building. Inside the government sold its goods at tables along the walls. In the Centre there were private sales.


“See these apples,” Ivan said, showing me piles of small, bruised apples. “These, the farmers provide to the state. Eighty kopeks a kilo.” At the Centre stalls the apples were red, unbruised, large, grade A. “These are the farmers’ share. Five rubles a kilo. Who says we shot all the capitalists?”


The tables held carrots, potatoes, beets, spices, bunches of high bush cranberries dried o the stem, whole dried fruit, pomegranates, mandarin oranges. The sellers didn’t look Russian or Ukrainian but oriental, part of the Eastern Empire beyond Moscow. These, I thought, were the ancestors of the invaders who’d worn the magnificent embroidered clothes in Moscow’s museums. These were not warriors behind the tables but farmers with broad brows and slanted eyes and dusky yellow skin. They had persimmons for sale that were overripe.


Ivan noticed me staring at them.


“Fifteen republics,” he said, “and over two hundred languages.”


We took the streetcar to the Museum of the great Patriotic War. We bought tickets for five kopecks and Ivan showed me how to cancel my own ticket in the automatic machine. We passed the Army Officer’s Mess, the Communist Party headquarters, new apartment blocks and old houses with orange roofs.


Before we reached the museum, I could see the statue on the roof. One hundred and thirty meters tall, it is made of stainless steel. It holds aloft a sword. Ivan asked, “Do you think it is in bad taste?” I shrugged because I’d never thought of memorials that way, as if their major function was to be in fashion.


Inside, we left our coats and hats with a babushka. She’d looked at my coat, trying to find the chain or loop of cloth by which to hang it. When she couldn’t she shook her head and looked at me disapprovingly. Ivan explained that I was a Canadian comrade. She relented, nodding as if to indicate that one couldn’t expect any more of a foreigner, comrade or not.


The building was a circle divided into pie-shaped rooms and each room was dedicated to a hero city. I only knew about Moscow and Leningrad. I didn’t know about the agony of the others. Every room had a diorama and sculpture. The display cases and walls held photographs and diaries, personal effects, letters, weapons dug up and identified. Everywhere there was a determination to not let death be impersonal.. The figures of the dead were so large, they were beyond conceiving, beyond imagining. In one room there was a guillotine. It wasn’t what I’d expected. A Tale of Two Cities had made me think of the guillotine as massive, as imposing, but this one was small and simple, made of steel, easily assembled, easily taken down so it could be moved from place to place.


“For killing people,” Ivan said. “Hitler was angry with Kiev. It delayed him. After he captured the city, the Nazis murdered two hundred thousand people in two years.” He turned away from me but I saw the muscles in his face tighten and the fingers of his right hand clench. “Do you know what this is?” he asked.


I shook my head. We were looking at something I thought might have been a cement mixer.


“For crushing bones. After they were raked out of the ovens.”


At the end of the tour we came to a room with glass topped display cases. Ivan whispered Afghanistan. These displays were like the others but visiting soldieries were standing at them, very quiet, not that they had been noisy before, but here they stood unmoving, staring at the displays, not bending down to look more closely,  just standing like they were never going to move. Ivan tugged at my sleeve and led me away. “Soon it will be over. Gorbachev will get us out. It’s no use trying to give people what they don’t want.”


Outside, we stood on the parapet overlooking the Dneiper.


“When the Red Army liberated Kiev, they had to cross here,” Ivan said.


Although it was not late, because the clouds hung low in the sky, it was already starting to turn dark. Before we’d gone into the museum, the river ice had been dotted with fishermen. Now they were all gone. Further out the river was open, then there was another strip of white ice and beyond that the river bank. As I watched, lights started going on. As I stood there, I tried t imagine what it was like. The Germans dug in where I was standing and the Red Army on the far bank, crawling over the dead to get at the enemy. I knew about Iow Jima and Bataan but the Americans couldn’t claim to have won this battle so Hollywood  hadn’t made a movie about it.


The darkness was like a fine mist, gradually erasing the far shore, softening the stainless steel woman who loomed above us. It was turning cold and I was glad of m y heavy coat and my fleece lined boots.

The evening before, New Year’s Eve, Ivan had taken me to the Cultural Palace. We’d gone on the subway. I was crowded and people were laughing and talking. Because it was called a palace, I thought it would be an old building with turrets and suits of armor but it was a modern theater with floors of glass windows and carpeted foyers in which there was courtly dancing, a fashion show, chamber music. When we went inside, I might have been in any North American theater, except for all the elderly men and women wearing green blazers and rows of medals.


I’d expected folk dancing, village costumes,  nostalgia. Instead, we got five rock bands from Riga and Moscow. Rock bands in outrageous clothes taken from American televisions. The musicians jumped and pranced across the stage, swinging their long hair and pounding out the amps. The audience was very polite in that formal, rather distant way audiences have when something exotic and incomprehensible is presented. Now standing on the ramparts with the riverbank fading away and the drizzle staring again, and thinking of the numbers of the dead and how wide the river was, I wondered what they thought, what they really thought, the veterans who were at the concert, the veterans who had stormed up this hill, other hills, across this river, across endless rivers. If the Rockers from Riga were the result, was it all worth it?